“May it please the court. My name is Shaseana Jackson. I am closing for the state of New Columbus,” Jackson declared, her booming voice bouncing off the walls of a makeshift courtroom.
The 36-year-old mother of two from Southeast Washington has always been on the other side of the table in court. With 24 arrests and seven convictions for crimes including assault, weapons possession, drug distribution and parole violations, Jackson, wearing an orange D.C. jail jumpsuit, now was thinking like a prosecutor and considering the impact of crime on a victim.
For 43 years, Georgetown University’s Street Law Program has been holding law classes for inmates at the jail, as well as in local high schools and juvenile centers. This month, an all-female class had a mock trial for the first time. The classes are part of the jail’s overall education program for its inmates.
The 14 women who participated acted as lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses and bailiffs. A D.C. Superior Court judge oversaw the case; a handful of visitors served as jurors.
“We learned what our constitutional rights are and how to see cases from all sides,” Jackson said. “The law changes so much. It’s like the weather, subject to change.”
In this mock trial, the case involved two people charged with breaking and entering and robbery during a deadly hurricane in 2016. The students were provided 52-page booklets that included background on the case, exhibits, testimony from witnesses and the defendants, police reports, and photos of the stolen items.
The class was taught by Georgetown Law student Anna Van Hollen. Van Hollen sat in the back, beaming with pride as her students argued their points and raised objections to the judge. At the end of the trial, “Miss Anna,” as the students called her, hugged each student while handing out their certificates.
The jury included Van Hollen’s father, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and her mother, Katherine. After deliberating with the rest of the jury for nearly 40 minutes, the senator said watching the women use legal principles to argue their points showed “amazing strength, positivity and resiliency.”
Imani Nunn, 23, said she was proud of her work in the case. Nunn, who is awaiting sentencing for armed robbery and kidnapping, wiped away tears while her face beamed with excitement as she completed the class. “This was the best feeling I ever had,” she said.
Overseeing the trial was D.C. Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, former head of the court’s criminal division. She is known in the courthouse for her vast knowledge of the law and acerbic tongue that takes lawyers — defense and prosecutors — to task when they don’t follow legal rules.
But Leibovitz is also a teacher, having trained prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in the District during her years when she was a federal prosecutor. When the defense team objected to witness testimony as “leading,” Leibovitz stopped to explain what leading is and when it was and was not permitted to be used by the attorneys. Halfway through the trial, as the women became more familiar with the process, fewer objections were overruled.
After the two-hour trial, the jury found one of the co-defendants guilty and the other not guilty based on the evidence. But all the women were praised for working together as teams, fighting for either the government or their clients.
Leibovitz took notes and critiqued each of the participants, commenting on what they had done correctly and what they got wrong. “I am tremendously proud of you,” the judge said. “Each of you prepared. And if lawyers don’t prepare, they do a lousy job,” she said.
When the women gathered around Leibovitz and their instructor for a photo, they yelled, “Girl power!”
Ashley Taylor, 27, is awaiting trial in a sex-trafficking case. She said the law classes “opened her eyes” to life.
When the session wrapped up, each of the women had to stand against the wall with their hands in front of them as a guard patted them down. Then they lined up, single file, to be escorted back to their unit.
Jackson said that once she finishes her sentence for a parole violation in a gun possession case, she is determined to stay on the outside. “This is it for me. I am — we are — more than these orange jumpsuits, and I am going to prove it.”